Have you ever seen so much hype for an RPG? Where you once had to explain the genre to friends and co-workers, they’re now approaching you to talk about the game. Where once they spoke of pwning and camping, it now seems they’re more interested in chasing dragons, climbing mountains and seeking out those elusive shouts. Skyrim is bringing to the RPG into the mainstream and its accomplishing this by offering an incredible amount of gameplay within the context of a spectacular open world.
You can sink more than 100 hours into the game and still have plenty of unexplored tombs and barrows awaiting you. The world simply looks stunning. And alive. There are countless towns and vast areas of wilderness to explore and every location has something for you to do. The setting owes a large debt to Rohan, as seen in the Lord of the Rings films. In other ways, it recalls Red Dead Redemption, in that its weather and skyline are simply astounding. You’re constantly amazed by just how beautiful the world is.
After escaping the chopping block because of a case of mistaken identity, you work your way to the nearest town and begin finding your way in the world. Events lead you to learn that you are ‘Dragonborn’ with the ability to absorb dragon souls to power ‘shouts’ which take the form of impressive magic abilities. This, you learn, places you front and centre in the battle to defeat the dragon threat and seemingly in the middle of everything else too.
You are the chosen one, born with special powers, destined to save the world. If Skyrim had a montage it would cover the slim character story quite nicely before Eye of the Tiger had even finished. To be frank, the main plot is completely dull. More interesting are the Guild quests which at least build along a tense narrative, but when completed actually have little to no impact on the wider gaming world. The civil war story seems to be something epic, but fizzles out and becomes nothing of great import. You may find that completing the game actually gives you very little sense of achievement. It’s nowhere near as much fun as smithing a unique suit of armour or preventing the onset of vampirism after being bitten.
Your surrounds are packed with content. Feel like chopping wood for money or mining ore for smelting? How about collecting plants and insects to make potions or hunting animals for food? It’s all there for you to do. You’ll also discover smithing and alchemy and lock picking and sneaking and… marriage! Skyrim is so adorned with things to do that it initially feels overwhelming. Even travelling can be tricky at first as bugs (the creepy crawly kind) can kill you. Once a location has been reached on foot (or by cart) it becomes available for ‘fast travel’ simply by clicking on the world map. Every area has something going on that you can uncover by talking to people or interrupt by having them attack you. It can be heart-breaking to see abandoned homes filled with people that have been there before you and met a grisly end.
Talking to NPCs allows you to find activities and unlock guilds to join. First you join the Companions (a clan of warriors) and later, the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood of assassins, the Mages College, the Stormcloaks… you get the idea. Each has a unique storyline to follow and quests to complete, and each serves to flesh out the roles played by the different populations and towns of Skyrim.
Levelling is easy but it still has a meaningful impact on playing the game. Experience points are jettisoned in favour of an experience bar that increases when skills are used. If you attack enemies with a one-handed weapon, your one-handed weapon skill goes up. Use healing magic and your healing magic skill increases and so on. Once your bar is full, you can first boost your health, magic or stamina and then spend a skill point to increase bonuses or perks for different abilities. So, one-handed attacks can become stronger or healing spells now cost less mana. This seems very simple at first, and it actually is, but the levelling system rewards your playing style. If you want to be a thief, use your sneak and lock pick skills, which then level you up and enable you to buy relevant perks. Want to be a fighter who uses magic? Same deal applies. This is a quiet revolution in low stat character building that other games will surely copy because it works so intuitively.
The world map is overflowing with explorable locations, but once you have completed the various story threads, cleaning out yet another set of ruins can wear a little thin. Sure you might remove a curse or gain some treasure, but nobody will thank you for it. As you surge beyond level 40, you become almost invincible. You have the best armour, finely honed abilities and enough money to buy any potion you might need. Once you’ve amassed some wealth, you may wish to purchase a house in one of the major cities or buy and sell goods, but once again, it doesn’t impact on the overall world. The NPCs can also be a little slow on the uptake. Even after completing the Mage quest line, you’re still approached by NPCs recommending that you go to the Mages College if you’re interested in magic.
With a game as big as this, you have to expect some problems. Bethesda has already released several patches to address performance and gameplay issues. PlayStation 3 owners are encountering lag as their save files increase, while Xbox 360 players can only now install the game to their hard drive without diminishing the quality of the graphics. PC owners are at least able to tinker with the code in order to fix some of the broken quests (don’t sell your Thieves Guild armour!). Unfortunately, some of the updates are creating new problems. It is a shame that so many patches are needed, but at least Bethesda seems to be listening.
As with a new relationship, the opening hours of Skyrim (‘opening hours’ in this case being the first 70 or so) have you abuzz with possibility and promise. You want to spend every minute together and boast to your friends about the amazing things you have done. Eventually, though, you begin to notice its faults and see what is lacking in the overall experience. It’s probably best to end your time with Skyrim before routine sets in and move on to another game. Kingdoms of Amalur looks interesting….